Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Demonic? Or delusional?

FC equipment (from the NYTM article)
I hate to sound alarmist but the sane, intelligent and good people on our planet seem headed for extinction. 

And an article from The Sunday New York Times Magazine (October 25, 2015) reinforces that doomsday view. It’s entitled "The Strange Story of Anna Stubblefield". But "strange" doesn't come close to describing this case.

Anna Stubblefield was an associate professor and chair of the philosophy department at New Jersey’s Rutgers University. She is the daughter of  parents with PhD’s in special education, the wife of a symphony orchestra tuba player and the mother of two.

As of October 2, she is also a convicted felon. A jury found her guilty of two counts of first-degree aggravated sexual assault - the same charge that would apply to someone who had inflicted severe injury during a rape or participated in a violent gang rape.

Her victim, named in the report only as DJ, is a man in his thirties who is profoundly physically and cognitively impaired. His mother and legal guardian has testified that the now 34-year-old victim wears diapers and needs help to walk, bathe, get dressed and eat. His brother, a student of Stubblefield's, has testified that DJ does not speak aside from making sounds that could not be interpreted by experts and that he has the cognitive capacities of an 18 month old.

Stubblefield will be sentenced on November 9 and could spend up to 40 years in prison.

So, how did this bizarre case evolve?

Stubblefield had been practicing Facilitated Communication (or FC) with her victim for several years. Initially the relationship was one of researcher and subject. It progressed to one of research partners, friends and, according to Stubblefield, it culminated in one of lovers. Because, she claims, that through FC typing, the victim consented to sex with her as his facilitator.

"DJ was very happy with what was going on," she said in court. If he needed to say something, he would bang the floor, and she would pause to set him up with the keyboard. "It was a few hours from getting undressed to afterglow," she said. When they were finished, he typed "I feel alive for the first time in my life."

FC is a technique purporting to enable disabled people to type on a keyboard with the help of a facilitator who grips the typer's elbow, shoulder or hand – or two of those at once.

Proponents insist that the person with disabilities is typing independently. But in the early nineties, controlled experiments were conducted  in which typers were asked to name objects that their facilitators either could or couldn’t see. In almost every case, it was apparent that the messages that the subjects typed were not their own. It was concluded that FC was an elaborate display of the ideomotor effect, in which an external suggestion or a person’s beliefs or expectations trigger unconscious movement: The facilitator was guiding the typing, even if she didn’t know it.

The method was duly discredited by mainstream professionals. In 1994, the American Psychological Association (APA), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ISAAC) all passed resolutions cautioning practitioners against the use of FC, citing the lack of scientific evidence. The APA also recommended that information obtained via FC should not be used to confirm or deny allegations of abuse or make diagnostic or treatment decisions. (There had already been many such claims litigated in court).

Testifying in the Stubblefield case, psychology professor James Todd said that
every "methodologically sound" study of facilitated communication has determined it to be an invalid means of communication. "It's become the single most scientifically discredited intervention in all of developmental disabilities," Todd said. ("Professor found guilty of sexually assaulting disabled man", October 2, 2015)
The judge in the case refused to allow expert testimony on the method because it is "not a recognized science".

Anna Stubblefield
Sixteen years ago, C. and I had our own FC encounter. I was then still receptive to any and every alternative treatment that was mentioned within my earshot. Any and every promise of delivery from the disaster that had befallen our C. had a good chance with me. There was no vetting, investigating or doubting.  So when an ex-friend of mine whose daughter had severe tuberous sclerosis, invited me to her home for a Facilitated Communication seance, I was there in a heartbeat.          .

For a fee from each of us, the facilitator "channeled" messages from our non-verbal children. This was the pre-tablet era, so the woman held a 4x5 inch alphabet card. She gripped each girl in turn by the elbow while their hands appeared to flit from letter to letter at lightening speed spelling out elaborate presentations. C. delivered a scathing, verbose diatribe about my losing my moral compass and immersing myself in materialism.

I was utterly blindsided. Of course, I didn’t doubt for an instant that the preachy malarkey had originated with facilitator. What I couldn't figure out was her motive in targeting me, a total stranger to her.

In any case, I was surprised to learn this week that that same patently fraudulent and long-debunked method is still in use by esteemed professionals.

The news site Inside Higher Ed has covered the story in an article entitled When Research Becomes Rape which I thought pithy and apt. But the commenters at the New York Times Magazine site also deserve a mention for analyzing the case from myriad perspectives. Several thought the punishment Stubblefield faces to be unfair. She is, after all, deranged, delusional and possibly unfit for trial.
Other commenters noted that FC is just one of innumerable snake-oil remedies peddled to a desperate group of people – the parents of children with severe disabilities.

And therein is the true tragedy of this story. I’ll sign my name to that.


philowitz said...

Thanks for your insightful post.
When you write:
"In any case, I was surprised to learn this week that that same patently fraudulent and long-debunked method is still in use by esteemed professionals."
I would add that the "professionals" who use this method are not esteemed by anyone other than their fellow practitioners.While I don't think these people are deliberately defrauding their disabled clients and families (I think they, like Stubblefield, are true believers),their commitment to this debunked method and its in-house research which they claim validates it,(and only the data and anecdotes from true believers provides positive results)resembles that of cult members, shutting themselves off from evidence and feedback from the wider world, and this feeds delusions. As you note, families of children with disabilities are desperate and eager to try anything, so it is easy to see how they can get sucked in and exploited. I am glad you and yours were able to resist that lure when you had that encounter.

The Sound of the Silent said...

Thanks for weighing in, Philowitz. I agree with your reference to Facilitated Communication as a cult, detached from empirical truth and the rest of the world. I suppose we can't prove whether all its members are true believers and self-delusional or brazen con-artists. My guess is that, like most alternative quackery, they're a mixed bag.

When I referred to Stubblefield as an "esteemed professional", I meant in the world of academia, as evidenced by her position of philosophy department chair, and associate professor at Rutgers University. As you noted, though, in the worlds of special education and alternative communication, FC practitioners are in no way esteemed.

Catherine said...

There have been a few documented cases where Facilitated Communication has been verified. The person was able to communicate specific things that were shown to him/her while the facilitator was out of the room. The thing is, if there is indeed facilitated communications, the first priority is to widen the circle for more "translators" so that no person is stuck with just one person in the world to be able to understand her.

There is a case now in Colorado, where there is suspicion of sorts that a young woman whose ONLY facilitator, her father, might have been abusing her. How to question this woman when the only way communication can supposedly be made is through the person who might be the abuser. In this case, the woman supposedly went through college, graduate programs, wrote a blog, wrote highly intelligent, insightful posts all through her faciltating father. But they can get absolutely nada from her without the father, and apparently verification failed. Why any parent, especially one getting on in the years did not make a huge effort to get some other means of communication going, find some other facilitators, I don't know. Even if this awful turn of events did not happen, had the father died or become disabled, the young woman had no other means of communication. Advocates for the disabled are demanding the woman's release....to her father. Yet there is that risk there.

The Sound of the Silent said...

Catherine: Thanks for sharing your views of Facilitated Communication. That does sound like an unusual case in Colorado; I'm surprised that advocates for the disabled urge the woman's return to her father.

Ariel Burns said...

So no one else but her dad can get her to talk and you believe that, after all that everyone is trying to tell you? No researcher that has any kind of credentials that matter has seen a verified case of FC. It's the ideomotor effect, and the girl indeed is damaged by her father and his FC with her.

I also have theory into why facilitators thought that children were sexually abused. It's because the facilitators themselves experienced the vulnerability of these children to act on the whims of another, moving their hands with the facilitator - the subconscious read the children's vulnerable state to be manipulated. And then they projected. That is what people do.